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Health secretary praises Medicare work

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on Friday praised compromise Medicare prescription drug legislation taking shape in Congress as "far superior" to bills passed earlier by the House and Senate, and expressed optimism that a deal was possible.

"It's far superior and better for everyone concerned _ Democrats, Republicans, the elderly, the administration, the House and Senate," said Thompson, the administration's point man in negotiations aimed at sending a bill to President Bush by year's end.

The formal negotiations have resulted in compromises on a variety of issues, but have yet to address the thorniest difference _ a Republican demand for traditional Medicare to compete directly with private health plans. "This is going to be the sticking point," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Friday at a health care summit in Columbus, Ohio. "This conference is either going to fail here in the next 10 days or it's going to come together. . . . If it brings it down, it's all over. Next year's politics."

Fourth victim found in parking garage collapse

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. _ Rescuers recovered the fourth and final victim of a parking garage collapse Friday, clearing the way for engineers and safety inspectors to begin the delicate, dangerous task of looking for a cause.

One freestanding exterior wall and several columns still were in danger of falling at Tropicana Casino and Resort. Authorities evacuated a 170-unit condominium building and a landmark restaurant Friday night before attempting to demolish the wall, police Capt. John J. Mooney said.

Early Friday morning, the fourth victim's body was found in a crushed stairwell. On Friday evening, authorities released the names of those killed: James P. Bigelow, 29, of Egg Harbor Township; Robert A. Tartaglio, 42, of Galloway Township; Scott N. Pietrosante, 21, of Milmay; and Michael M. Wittland, 43, of Pleasantville.

Sniper tried to contact police, prosecutors say

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. _ Prosecutors showed evidence at the John Muhammad murder trial Friday that the Washington sniper made several unsuccessful efforts to contact police with a scheme to extort a $10-million payoff to stop the killings.

In a written message left for police after an Oct. 19 shooting in Ashland, Va., and in a telephone call to an FBI task force two days later, the sniper expressed frustration that no one was listening to his demands and threatened to shoot children as a result.

"Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time," a note from the sniper said. The note, with printed letters written on distinctive pink paper and highlighted with five red stick-on stars, was found in a plastic sandwich bag decorated with Halloween characters tacked to the bark of a tree in the wooded area behind a Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland, where Jeffrey Hopper was shot around 8 p.m. on Oct. 19.

Prosecutors also showed the jury surveillance tapes from a Big Lots store in Ashland, which contains a grainy picture of a man who looks like Muhammad shopping at 4.01 p.m. Oct. 19, about four hours before Hopper was shot at the nearby Ponderosa.

Investigators said they found the Big Lots store carried pink paper and plastic sandwich bags with Halloween figures on them.

Va. doctor innocent in OxyContin case

ROANOKE, Va. _ Federal prosecutors failed to win a single conviction Friday against a Roanoke doctor they accused of illegally prescribing medicine, including OxyContin, that contributed to the deaths of seven patients.

After a seven-week trial and more than a week of deliberating in U.S. District Court, a jury found Dr. Cecil Byron Knox III not guilty of about 30 of the 69 charges against him. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts, prompting Chief U.S. District Judge Samuel Wilson to declare a mistrial.

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TOYS "R' US AD UPSETS ANTIDRUG ADVOCATES: A Toys "R" Us television commercial that featured mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe inhaling helium from a balloon has drawn the ire of antidrug advocates who say the ad sends a dangerous message to children. "Any portrayal of inhalant use is bad," Charles Curie, administrator for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said Friday. The ad campaign has finished its rotation and will not be reintroduced, Toys "R" Us said.